Capitalism in space: The announcement yesterday by Firefly that it has awarded SpaceX the launch contract for its Blue Ghost lunar lander mission (scheduled for launch in ’23) is significant because it continues a remarkable pattern of dominance by SpaceX of the lunar launch market.
Right now, of the seven scheduled robot missions to the Moon, SpaceX will launch all but one. The full list, in no particular order:
In addition, SpaceX launched Israel’s Beresheet lander in 2019 on a Falcon 9.
Furthermore, SpaceX has won the contract from NASA for the agency’s first manned lunar lander, using Starship. It has also won the contract to launch the initial components of NASA’s Lunar Gateway space station on a Falcon Heavy.
There are other lunar missions in the works (by Russia, China, and others), but these are all the launches awarded as commercial contracts to private rocket companies in recent years. Thus, of these ten lunar missions, SpaceX has launched or is launching nine. That’s a 90% market share!
SpaceX’s dominance in winning these contracts is obvious. Its rockets are far cheaper than its competitors. The company has also demonstrated that their rockets are reliable, proving this by its ability to routinely reuse the first stage.
While this string of contract awards is great for SpaceX, and its low prices great for the companies launching landers and rovers to the Moon, that SpaceX’s competitors are not competing very successfully is not good news.
For example, ULA proposed and is building its Vulcan rocket to compete with SpaceX, but because it will initially not be reusable it will not do so. And even when reusability is later added to the rocket, the design — limited to only recovering the first stage engines — will not lower its cost significantly. It will always cost too much to launch.
Arianespace has the same problem with its new Ariane 6 rocket. It is not reusable and has thus failed to win many contracts because its high price is not competitive.
And though Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket will be reusable like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and thus competitive in price, it is two years behind schedule. The delay is partly because of issues with developing the rocket’s BE-4 first stage engine, but it is also because Blue Origin decided in to chase military contracts and was forced to rework the rocket to meet the military’s bureaucratic demands. It was therefore not available to bid on any of these lunar launch contracts and lost that business.
The U.S. needs many robust rocket companies to fuel innovation and low prices. Leaving the job to one company is a bad idea, because it provides no options and leaves everyone vulnerable.
It is time for others to step up and start competing. And that doesn’t mean protesting government contract awards to SpaceX. It means building rockets that are as good and even better than SpaceX’s. Only then will we be poised to colonize the solar system effectively and quickly.
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